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Are You a Yoga Show Off?

non-competitive yoga

Charlotte Bell in Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana

Walking Your Talk:  Teaching Non-Competitive Yoga

One of the things I really loved about yoga practice from the get-go was the fact that it is not meant to be competitive. My early teachers were all quick to emphasize that comparing yourself to your neighbors is not helpful. As a decidedly Type B introvert, I found this to be a relief. We Type B introverts do not always fare well in a world that celebrates getting ahead. We’re just not as good at it as our Type A friends, and when it’s not in your nature to strive it takes a whole lot of ungraceful effort to do so.

But yoga was different. Along with the lovely, spacious feeling I felt after practice, the de-emphasis on competition signaled that I had found my home in yoga. On top of that, I have always had a flexible body, inherited from my gymnast dad.

Flexibility has long been intimately tied to my identity. My two sisters and I all inherited my parents’ athleticism, but only I could fall into effortless splits. My bendiness was one of the ways I got noticed. There was no need to compete for attention with my extroverted sisters, a pursuit that was doomed to failure. Without having to say a word, I could get attention just by doing some crazy-looking thing with my floppy body.

So when I started practicing yoga, I realized that in certain classes I commanded attention simply by what my body could do. Sometimes my hypermobility brought praise, sometimes I became the example of what not to do if you like healthy joints. Even though I was not consciously striving and competing, I was heavily invested psychologically and emotionally in the fact that my body was capable of “advanced” poses.

This led to a cognitive disconnect in my teaching. I was sincerely committed to the idea of non-competitive yoga. I  understood the wisdom of this—safety of the student, the way striving and discontent takes you out of the moment, the futility of comparing yourself to a genetically different person whose history is entirely different from your own. I got this—at least intellectually.

Cognitive Dissonance

Yet, at the same time I was telling students that yoga is not competitive, I was demonstrating the opposite. For example, 15 years ago, when I taught Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose), I never failed to demonstrate the full version (see the above photo), a pose that on average 90 percent of my students would never be able to do, simply because of the underlying structural realities of their lumbar spines, hip joints and shoulder joints.

I could rationalize demonstrating the pose by saying that I meant to inspire them, to show them what is possible. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the full version of Pigeon is not possible for probably most students. When I reflected some years later on my motivation for demonstrating “advanced” poses, I realized it was likely I did this to establish my superiority as a yogi—to use my bendy body to get attention and respect. At the time I would have chafed at the thought that this was my motivation. It went against everything I think of as responsible teaching.

When I finally owned up to my tendency to show off without meaning to show off, the realization was humbling and freeing. I had to admit that I was not walking my talk. Sure, it’s fine to show individuals whose bodies are capable of fancy poses safe ways to approach these poses. But I realize that demonstrating them for my classes at large is fraught with problems—for my students and for me.

The Problem with Being a Yoga Show-Off

When teachers show off, it causes at least some students to feel inadequate. Many will feel that they are not capable of doing yoga at all if they can’t do fancy poses. How many times have you heard someone say she can’t possibly do yoga because she is not flexible? Demonstrating fancy poses gives students the erroneous idea that yoga is about performance and that “advanced” yogis are the ones who do “advanced” poses. It may even cause some students to try to force themselves into poses of which they are incapable, which can lead to injury.

As a teacher, showing off fancy poses in class reinforced my attachment to my identity as a bendy person. That attachment caused me to subscribe to the “more is better” theory of flexibility. For almost two decades, my practice was about gaining more and more flexibility. This created an unhealthy instability in my body, a lack of balance that surfaced as I entered my 50s. And clinging to an identity as a bendy person, a stiff person, a happy person, a sad person, a smart person or a dull person—all these identities limit our ability to see the truth of our vast, infinite being.

Are your words congruent with your actions when you teach? How do you bring words and action together while encouraging your students not to be competitive?



About Charlotte Bell

Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to schools and to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

22 thoughts on “Are You a Yoga Show Off?”

  • T.A.H.

    Lovely. Thank you for addressing this issue so well. It's great that more and more people are addressing the realities of our diverse bodies. Years ago, there were so many yoga/asana teachers (often the ones who were naturally bendy or who had previous careers in dance or gymnastics) who simply refused to believe that some bodies will never do 'that' pose, no matter how much practice. No matter how many years. No, the student was not lazy or lying or making excuses. They were simply being themselves.

    Also, it's so important for the notion that there are more advanced yoga poses to be done away with. There truly is no such thing as a more advanced pose -- each pose has its purpose and does what it does for each person, at that time, in that moment. The very notion of 'more advanced posing' speaks for itself -- and it's not a particularly nice sound to listen to.

  • Charlotte

    Thanks, T.A.H. I so agree with you. Many years ago, I was the teacher you describe: I thought that with enough practice anyone could do certain poses. I didn't think they were being lazy or making excuses, but I did think that anything was possible for anyone. Now I know that most of the time what people can or can't do has less to do with soft tissue than it does with bony structure, and that doesn't change.

    I lived in the contradiction of knowing that yoga was not about performing poses, and at the same time deriving self worth from doing “advanced” poses (a phrase I also find useless). Old habits die hard though, so it took me a long time to unwind my own conditioning around doing fancy poses. I'm happy to be on the other side of that now!

  • T.A.H.

    I was very lucky, a few years ago, to move out of London (which is a very Type A/competative environment) and to the 'burbs, where I started studying with teachers who all trained with a Hindu swami who lives locally. I now take classes directly with her. When I first started, she warned me that her classes weren't going to be like those I may have been used to in London and I could do a free class just to see if I wanted to continue. I never looked back! The class does contain asana, but it is geared towards the 'end goal' (for lack of a better term in my head right now) of sitting "and knowing that we are sitting, breathing and knowing that we are breating" -- meditation. So I'm lucky to have found a teacher who, like you, is on the other side of all that 'stuff' above. Glad there are teachers like you and her out there -- hopefully more and more teachers will get to the other side soon ;)

    • Charlotte

      T.A.H.: Thanks! I was very lucky to have learned from two teachers whose practice was about living their yoga and moving into freedom. They built and lived in a small retreat center where they hosted small groups of 10 or fewer. All but one of the retreats I attended there were silent, insight meditation retreats with a short, mindful, daily asana practice to prepare our bodies for sitting. The teachers were highly trained in asana (they lived and practiced with Iyengar in the '70s and '80s), but their main focus was mindfulness practice. It took a long time, but I do feel as if I'm on the other side of the competitive stuff. This is not to say that the impulse doesn't still come up sometimes, but it stays just at the level of impulse and I'm no longer feeding it. As my teacher once said to me, “Once you stop pedaling a bicycle the wheels keep turning for a while.”

  • Andrea

    Thank you Charlotte! I can really, really relate. Yoga came easily to me, I took ballet as a kid and could just arabesque anytime anywhere... It felt amazing to find an exercise class (my first yoga class) where nobody cared about how you look. I welcomed the inward-focused-ness and helped healed a newly-divorced broken heart. Then a move caused me to search for new yoga community. I was introduced to ashtanga and all that it entails. Lovely, but with a new level of competition that made me even more grateful for my prior, inward, non ego-based training. I took a TT and went on to teach but always felt I had a slightly unfair advantage because of my natural abilities. I always stress to any student that you are getting 100% of the BENEFITS of the yoga pose, if you are doing it at the appropriate level for your body.
    Thank you for a terrific article and I look forward to more of your writings.

    • Charlotte

      Thanks, Andrea. Sometimes I think being bendy is a disadvantage for a yoga teacher. When the poses come easily, it's hard to comprehend what the vast majority of people go through. I've found that the poses that have really been challenging for me (standing poses especially) are the ones I teach the best, because I had to start at square one.

  • Tina

    I really appreciate the insight and wisdom contained in this article.

  • Lydia Jane

    Amen! The asanas exist to open up blocks and move energy in the body, and the more sedentary and unbalanced our daily life, the more physical blocks show up in our bodies. But whether we are doing a deep backbend or an easy backbend, the energetic effect is similar. If someone's body is ready to go deeper, it may benefit from a more challenging pose, but then again it may not, depending on the energetic effect the person is trying to achieve, and the energetic effect they need to create balance and harmony (not always the same). asanas exist to prepare us for deeper meditation and self reflection, to bring balance and harmony to mind and body. otherwise, they are just another form of dance, gymnastics, athletics, or exercise.

  • Charlotte

    Amen to your comment as well! Asana was developed to calm the nervous system, not to create performance anxiety. Calming the nervous system prepares the mind's environment (the body) for deeper practices. Each person's practice will be different from anyone else's, and each individual's most intelligent practice will vary day to day and throughout his/her life.

  • Jody

    I really appreciate this post. It's a fine line.

    Just today I was thinking and then talking about adding a few somewhat more difficult poses to the Intro class I teach, but then realized how this may just be something I want to add and not necessarily what my students need. In these early stages of yoga (typically their very first classes taken) I mostly want to have students connect with their bodies and breath and feel successful with their practice. The last thing I want them to walk away with is any feeling of not measuring up or being able to practice.

    As someone who is not at all bendy, I struggle(d) with most each and every pose and often wonder what it must be like to just move so effortlessly into them. For me, each is a challenge so I very much empathize and can relate with those who have difficulties. Patience has become a very good friend of mine. Patience and acceptance.

  • Michael Stusser

    Thank you for such a thought-provoking essay. As someone who can barely touch their toes, I would just say this about the "show-off factor": When I see someone do a beautiful Wheel or kapotasana - and I'm just trying to set my blocks up and arch my spine and pelvis a millimeter in one direction or the other - the demonstration gives me the vision - the understanding - the idea of the DIRECTION I'm heading in. And then, for a second, in my mind, I'm there! My Bird of Paradise FLIES into the sunset and ....I fall onto my bolster and towel off....So keep showing us what it's supposed to look like. We all have dreams...

  • Yael Calhoun

    Hi Charlotte,

    Well, yoga is about exploring boundaries, and fine lines are included in that! I took my first ever yoga class from you ... wow, 20 years ago! Knowing nothing about yoga and not much about my body. I was hooked on yoga after one class with you. I always felt you gave your students plenty of room to explore within the safe boundaries of your class design. And, I will say, having spent many hours in your classes all those years ago, that any demos of poses you did only made me feel open to the possibilities. My forward folds in those days brought my hands to about my knees...

    It's always good as a teacher, and a person, to evaluate and re-evaluate one's motivations for teaching and the language with which we teach. So thank you for that reminder, Charlotte...along with thank you for so many other things!

  • Charlotte

    As both Jody and Yael have commented, it is a fine line. Some people, like Michael, might appreciate a demo of the bendiest version of a pose. Others might feel discouraged by it. I guess it's really important to know who's in your class. That's why I prefer to teach smaller groups so that I can get to know people.

    I personally find it important to make everyone feel appreciated for his/her unique strengths, and to make sure they all know that each person's practice is going to look different. As Lydia Jane said above, “whether we are doing a deep backbend or an easy backbend, the energetic effect is similar.” So for some doing the bendiest version of a pose the right way to work with it, hanging back a bit is the way to go.

    Thanks to everybody for your thoughful comments!

  • Vision_Quest2

    If you want to attract a primarily home practitioner who does not in their dreams (would not responsibly say "wildest" dreams) identify with the gymnastics class drop-outs ... just err on the side of being too mild. Chances are good-to-great you know a lot more about alignment than the trendy-wannabe-stylista du jour .. (at least I should hope so)

    Every time the class would go into child (and it was so many times!), I'd just take my block under me and go into supta virasana.

    I made that class work for me. And it beat the pants off the class where the teacher ambushed me and yanked me into a pose I wouldn't be ready for, for years. And it really beats the pants off the class where a couple of the students would "warm up" before class doing pincha mayurasana near the wall ... I did not, and never do, need to be subjected to that ...

  • Gilly

    Interesting topic. I find that Facebook as become another outlet for the Yoga Show off . Many instructors post shots of themselves in 'advanced' - often Ashtanga - poses that most average practitioners can't achieve. This can both inspire students who follow their show off teachers, or endanger them physically. Also, as I see it, the show off poses feed the ego of the teacher rather than teaching their yogis healthy ways to detach from it.

    I have found the Western Yoga practitioners are more often working from a competitive (ego?) approach, which is not what i want for my personal practice. I have enough challenges throughout the day that challenge my ego's attachment to outcomes, I do not need it in Yoga practice.

  • Michael A. Stusser

    Here's a video I did that should lighten up the mood.



  • Jessica

    I am a yoga student of over ten years. I have a strong practice. If I attended a class I would appreciate the teacher demonstrating the advanced/full variation of the asana (or give the option). How else will we learn what to work towards? How else will we know what the next step is and learn it? If I am not given the opportunity to do a deeper asana I don't always feel like my body is energetically flowing as well as when I just do the beginner variations.

    • Charlotte Bell

      Hi Jessica, Thanks for your comment. It's true that if you want to learn the fancier variations of a pose you should work with a teacher that knows how to take you there safely. The problem is that many teachers don't have the depth of knowledge to understand that a student's skeletal structure--the shape and orientation of the joints--is a far greater indicator of whether or not a student will ever be able to bend extremely than the flexibility of their soft tissue. There are poses--eka pada rajakapotasana, urdva dhanurasana with straight arms, padmasana, to name just a few--that some people will never be able to achieve because of the way their joints are shaped. (When I taught a teacher training with Donna Farhi to 50 very experienced students from around the world, only four of us could do padmasana safely!) When bone hits bone, compression happens and there's no getting around it.

      When I was in my show off period, I had the erroneous idea that if someone practiced enough they'd be able to do fancy poses. Many of the fancier poses depend on a person's structure being able to move beyond normal range of motion and into an unhealthy range. That's why I don't practice them anymore. Even though my body feels more open after I practice a fancy variation, I feel much of that openness in my joints. When you stretch joints you overstretch the ligaments, which are mostly made of collagen fibers and do not receive a lot of blood flow. Ligaments are meant to limit joint movement. Once they are overstretched, the joints are compromised. Does this make sense?

  • Jessica

    I would also like to add the flexibility did NOT come naturally for me...the strength did. When I started yoga I couldn't touch my hands to the floor. I had to work hard and it took years. I was doing beginner variations of asanas for a few years before switching studios, then I went to a studio that gave options for the full expression. My practice blossomed. Without those advanced demonstration/options I would never have known what was possible.

    Charolotte- you wrote in your article you are in your 50s. Do you sincerely feel a flexible body is bad as we age? I am in my mid twenties and plan to do yoga for my entire life. Should I hold back?

    • Charlotte Bell

      Hi Jessica, Thanks so much for your comment. Strength was very challenging for me early on. My floppy body was completely undisciplined and I had to do remedial versions of standing poses for a year in order to train myself not to overstretch my joints.

      I feel that maintaining a level of flexibility as we age is a very positive thing. Most people's bodies tend to stiffen as they age. What is not a good idea is to keep stressing our joints by over stretching ligaments and tendons. I know a number of senior teachers who have had to have hip replacements because they overstretched their joints over decades of asana practice. There's a difference between a healthy lengthening of muscle and hanging in the joints. Overly flexible people tend to overstretch their joints because there is so little muscular resistance. I do believe that asana practice can be a lifelong companion. But the practice has to change. There are poses I don't do anymore even though my body is still capable because some of my joints have become very unstable. My practice is much more subtle than it used to be and it's actually a lot more satisfying!

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